Archive for Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows
I remember my very first Grasshopper Sparrows, and I remember many of the hundreds — maybe thousands — of individuals I’ve seen in the 35 years since. But whenever I see this species in New Jersey, as I did yesterday morning at the beautiful Negri-Nepote Grassland Preserve, I think of one particular bird in Mercer County in September 1999.
Alison and I had just moved to New Jersey — her first time to live in the state, my second. One evening before her classes started I spirited her away out of Princeton to the north shore of the lake in Mercer County Park, near enough to require only a little driving but far enough, at least as I remembered it, to turn up some birds. We’d barely parked when we heard that high-pitched, hissing trill, and it took no more than a minute for us to find the singer, perched atop –
The very bulldozer that was spending its working days turning the grassy field into more golf course, more parking lot, and less sparrow habitat was serving in the evening as a song perch for a Grasshopper Sparrow. The sight was sad and heartening and funny and, well, sad all at once. We kind of get used to that here in New Jersey.
I’ve been unfair to Audubon.
For years — for decades, in fact, ever since, as a fourth grader, I first learned about the man and the work — I’ve judged him, and harshly, solely on the evidence of the engraved plates that make up the The Birds of America.
I’ve been fortunate over the years to have been affiliated with a couple of institutions that own full sets, and I’ve always appreciated the big books as masterpieces of technology and entrepreneurial drive. But art? Not really.
My mind was changed, completely and abruptly, in late April when I finally made my way to the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition of some 220 of Audubon’s paintings — not the plates that were printed, colored, and sold to subscribers, but the actual paintings that served as the exemplars for the engraver.
Like most of us, the closest I’d ever come to seeing anything from Audubon’s paintbrush was the rather poor reproductions, on decidedly poor paper, of the watercolors published and republished in the 1970s and 80s. The originals themselves have been shown only very rarely in the 150 years since they were purchased from Lucy Audubon – but they are astonishing, startling, eye-opening.
They’re really good.
Not only do the paintings reveal an artist in masterful command of his media, but they also, just as surprisingly, have a few things to teach us about the birds Audubon was painting. Take his Snow Bird, the bird we know today as the Dark-eyed Junco.
The engraving of this otherwise so engaging sparrow in Birds of America has always left me cold. It’s bland and dull, and the coloring of the specimens I’ve seen has always seemed vague, especially on the lower bird, the male, whose breast and hood just don’t seem to want to join up as they do in real life. Poor draftsmanship, poor engraving, poor coloring: it doesn’t really matter where the sloppiness was introduced.
Most of the engravings are more or less faithful renderings of Audubon’s originals: but not this time. The painting, prepared from specimens collected in Louisiana, differs strikingly from the engraved plate in depicting a male bird with a decidedly black, highly contrasting hood, sharply set off in a straight line from the softer gray of the breast sides and flank; the lower edge of that hood extends into the white lower breast, creating a “convex” border.
You know where this is headed, don’t you?
Audubon’s bird was not your everyday Slate-colored Junco. Instead, the bird that he shot and drew was a male Cassiar Junco, and his painting was the first depiction ever of a “flavor” of juncos that would not be formally described until 1918, nearly a hundred years later.
I don’t know whether we have any of Audubon’s instructions to the colorists responsible for finishing the plate, but I still think that we can figure out with some certainty what happened. I’m guessing that Audubon was slightly puzzled when he reviewed his Louisiana painting, and that he asked the engraver and the colorists to “correct” the pattern of the bird’s breast and sides to match that of the Slate-colored Junco, the taxon he would later describe in the Ornithological Biography.
Had I not seen the painting hanging in New York, I would have gone on in my benighted way, shaking my head over another botched Audubonian bird. Instead, I wind up admiring more than ever before the ornithologist who discovered the Cassiar Junco — and the artist who gave us such a fine depiction of a wonderful but long unrecognized bird.
The last of our Slate-colored Juncos is gone, drifted north on last week’s warmth, but we still have at least three White-throated Sparrows gulping down the birdseed.
At least two are bright white-stripers like this one, but not all the tan birds are gone, either:
The calendar flips over to May tomorrow morning, and we won’t have many more days left with this species. Enjoy them — the birds and the days.
April, and it’s still chilly here in north Jersey. What to do, where to go…?
The Texas Ornithological Society gathered this past weekend in Laredo, and I joined the 60-odd registrants as field trip leader and banquet speaker.
The weather was cool, the company cooler, and the birding non-stop. With all those skilled and eager eyes afield, the weekend tally exceeded 200 species; but one above all others made my day — three days in a row.
I haven’t spent all that much time in the Rio Grande Valley, but I’ve certainly been there often enough and looked hard enough to make White-collared Seedeater one of the most conspicuous gaps on my US list. So the instant we arrived in Laredo, Lee and I set off for the wonderful Zacate Trail.
And there, singing from the tree tobacco, was a fancy little male seedeater, duller than the birds one sees so easily and so often in Middle America, but more contrasty than I had prepared myself for. The bird perched up for a good ten minutes, whistling away with a song that, interestingly, never once broke out into the expected final trill.
I would hear seedeaters each day, and had outstanding views again on Saturday, when my group found no newer than four individuals along the river. After Laredo, I’m never going back to the scenes of earlier failures in Zapata and San Ygnacio!
Thanks to TOS and its members for a fantastic weekend and some really fine birding. Hope to see everybody again soon — come to New Jersey sometime.
Almost yearly the Linnaean Society of New York held seminars devoted to the field identification of … Sharp-tail[ed Sparrows] so that its members could add them to their lists. — Roger Tory Peterson, 1947
Proud carriers on of a long tradition, ten of us assembled early this morning at Sandy Hook, that hottest of October sparrow hotspots.
I meekly accept the blame for failing to notify the sparrows in advance.
Not that it was a bad day, not at all. But you know things aren’t quite right when just half an hour into a trip you start to find yourself muttering about “quality, not quantity” and pointing out the places where good birds have been — in the past — the fairly distant past….
The problem was the weather. It was far too nice for sparrows, bright and calm and warm. The many migrants still present Thursday morning had managed to push on south Thursday night, before the winds shifted to the southwest and rain started early Friday morning. Last night’s winds still had a strong southerly component, meaning essentially that nothing flew in to replace the lucky birds that had got out the night before.
It didn’t help, either, that our first stop, the salt marsh across from Lot B, my sure-fire spot for Nelson’s Sparrow this time of year, was the chosen breakfast venue of a lovely female Merlin. Unsurprisingly, even the few Song and White-throated Sparrows there were sticking to cover, forcing the poor hungry falcon to chase Red-winged Blackbirds and harass American Crows, which along with the abundant Myrtle Warblers were about the only birds we human birders could find, too.
No towhees? No Palm Warblers? Definitely time to cut our losses. We drove straight to the famous K Lot, a place I’ve spent many hours over the years simply leaning on the rail fence as sparrow after sparrow after sparrow flock dropped in to be admired.
It was warm, it was bright, it was stunningly beautiful, it was birdless. The dirt road from K to the fenced dump has provided some of the most exciting birding of my life over the years, but our walk in was nearly uninterrupted by the avian. A single Field Sparrow popped up to give us a lesson in Spizella tail length, followed by a couple of Song Sparrows to instruct us in Melospiza tubbiness.
On our disappointed way back to the parking lot, another Spizella caught my eye–a Clay-colored Sparrow, one of the Hook’s regular autumn specialties. Everyone got a decent look before the bird flew over our heads and landed briefly in the sun before taking off again towards the parking lot. We followed, and found the bird feeding in the tall grass just a few feet away, below eye level and in perfect light, with what turned out to be the day’s only (!!) Swamp Sparrow.
We gazed our fill, then walked to the old Proving Ground, usually one of the best sites for sparrows at the Hook. Nothin’. Nothing, that is, until a Clay-colored Sparrow emerged from the grasses to perch and give us scope views. Two in a day is good for New Jersey, even for Sandy Hook. And three is even better, as we discovered on returning to K Lot and finding (presumably) our original clay-color keeping company with another, bathing in a puddle and feeding, tame, in the grasses.
The day was clearly salvaged, but otherwise we still weren’t finding much more than sparrow dribs and sparrow drabs. A first-cycle White-crowned Sparrow gave two of us a fleeting look, and a single Slate-colored Junco flew calling over our heads, but it looked like lunch was the better part of valor.
The picnic pavilion at North Beach looks down on a long, gentle grassy slope, prime habitat for migrant sparrows; but predictably, not today. Happily, a post-prandial restroom stop was occasion for two first-cycle White-crowned Sparrows to perch high in a cedar, finally giving us all good views of what should have been, in the last days of October, an easy, common, and conspicuous bird.
We were all satisfied with the outstanding views we’d enjoyed of Clay-colored Sparrows, so we decided to spend the rest of our outing on the inside, birding the area from the scout camp back north to the old sewage plant. Our route was uncluttered by sparrows, but we added a few birds to the day list, among them Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue-headed Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Brown Creeper, common fall birds that we should have been seeing all day.
But you know what? When we parted in the late afternoon, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. I’d had a beautiful day out in thoroughly enjoyable company, and I’d even seen a few sparrows. When it comes down to it, it’s hard to complain when you’re a birder in October.